Black Thought speaks in raps.
With over 20 years in the game, the venerable emcee and co-founder of the equally legendary group The Roots exists in a class of rappers that live for the craft of stitching syllables and tricking flows. Black Thought verses play like John Coltrane’s sheets of sound in rhyme. After helping to deliver as many Roots projects as he’s spent years rapping, the Philadelphia native has teamed up with equally groundbreaking producer 9th Wonder to release Streams of Thought Vol. 1, his first-ever non-Roots project.
The EP’s title and format are true to Black Thought’s temperament as an MC, always demanding a second look. Opting to invert the plurals in a common turn of phrase trips us up and makes us curious, and packing his heady bars into a concise 18-minute project gives us the space to appreciate and digest the work without being intimidated. In terms of content, Black Thought's bars toe the same line of political mindfulness and entertainment, sprawling imagery and fantasy that make him such a pleasure to listen to. First and foremost, then, Streams serves as a reminder that Black Thought is one of hip-hop’s best, most consistent artists.
Beyond aligning a row of crunchy drum loops for Black Thought to trample over (“9th vs. Thought”), 9th Wonder creates whip-smart beats that engage with and contort to Thought’s delivery. 9th wastes no space on these tracks, evading the dead-air critique of boom bap production by adding in subtle layers in the pockets of percussion (“Dostoyevsky”) until the track is damn near in conversation with Black Thought himself. More importantly, 9th’s soundscape provides the body and movement of a hook as this project goes without the smoothing of a single chorus.
At five tracks of pure bars, and standing as Black Thought’s first solo project, Streams is still rife with a collaborative spirit. Aside from 9th Wonder’s production, we get superb contributions from Rapsody, Styles P, and KIRBY. Rapsody, in particular, comes out swinging, with one of her grimiest deliveries to date. There’s an attractive weight to her bars, making them deluxe and near-sinuous. Her verse is thick and unctuous, but to be lived in all the same.
Despite these highs, Black Thought’s thoughtfulness and tenure do not make him infallible. On “Making a Murderer,” originally released in April 2016, his flow stutter steps and all but gets away from him over the erratic percussion. The track plays ever so out of sync and, suffice to say, the Mario Batali punchline did not age well. Yet, at the drop of a piercing woodwind, Black Thought picks up the pace and begins running laps around the beat—his specialty as a wordsmith.
By the project’s close, though, listeners will walk away with very little in terms of insight. Thought's consistency is admirable, but in form, it makes the music a bit complacent. The EP is technically airtight and well-written; the frustration is less so that Black Thought has run out of topics and metaphors, and more so that his methods of execution demand to be reinvigorated.
Black Thought is and will remain a mainstay in the conversation for greatest rapper of all time, and his work with The Roots will forever pin his name to classic records, but Streams of Thought Vol. 1 will likely fail to excite fans pining over the prospect of a solo career. As much of a joy as it is to hear him rap in this bite-sized offering, the EP lacks staying power outside of the strength of Black Thought’s name.
We’ll always come for the bars, but what exactly are we staying for this time around?
Two Standout Tracks
“Dostoyevsky” ft. Rapsody
With a beat that bites back and one of Rapsody’s best verses to date, “Dostoyevsky” captures all the essential elements of Black Thought’s style and skill. His raps scale the production like a grip of thick vines, with a declarative thud to every bar that makes this song a heavyweight.
“Thank You” ft. KIRBY (prod. Khrysis)
In spite of the confessional and reckoning nature of the content, Black Thought is skating on this cut. There’s a surprising lightness to his delivery, a sonic manifestation of weights being lifted. “Listen, thank you,” he concludes the track and the project. It’s crisp, not too sentimental, but weighty all the same.